Missouri Highway Patrol
Wed, 04/21/2021 - 12:04pm admin
Ninety Years Old in Howell County This Week
This week marks the ninetieth anniversary of the creation of an organization I worked for over a third of its existence. Before I retired, on the occasion of the organization's sixtieth birthday, I wrote a history of the Missouri State Highway Patrol's Troop G, telling of its impact locally. This article is partially gleaned from that history.
On April 24, 1931, the Missouri State Legislature, after haggling for a decade, finally passed a bill creating the State Patrol. Anticipating how and where the organization would be utilized here was often reported and debated in our local newspapers. Crime had been on the rise in the Ozarks since the Depression, and car crashes were killing Howell county citizens at a rate greatly exceeding today's fatality rate, despite a much smaller population.
The Howell County Journal announced on April 30, 1931, that, "Before the close of summer the state highways of Missouri will be patrolled by state police. Governor Caulfield has signed the bill, saying he was taking his chances on it. The new law may work out all right, but the cost of maintenance will prove a heavy burden on the funds of the highway department from whence all salaries and expenses must be paid. There will be 115 patrolmen at a salary of $1,800 per year each, and ten captains at salaries of $2,400 each. The estimated cost per annum of this department is estimated as high as $700,000 per year. This means that possible road construction will be cut each year to the extent of the cost of the highway patrol." That conflict of funding to operate the Patrol, being taken out of the MoDOT or State Highway Department budget, continued through my time in the organization. It was unfair to both organizations.
In May, the same paper carried a headline, "A Big Rush is Now On for Highway Patrol Jobs." Four thousand had applied for an initial fifty-five jobs offered. Today the Patrol struggles to get a fraction of that many applicants. Local endorsements started the sifting process. A West Plains Journal-Gazette article dated May 28, 1931, stated that J. Fent Chapin, a former Clerk of Howell County, had gotten the endorsement of the Republican Committee for a Captain's appointment. Russell Corn, Manager of the Farmer's Exchange of Willow Springs, was endorsed for a trooper slot. Men were to be appointed equally between the Democratic and Republican parties, but the Republicans dominated the Howell County government. In the end, it was all for naught, and none of the Howell County nominees were appointed.
It was November 1931 before the West Plains Journal reported the new troopers would be taking the road. They wrote, "There will be 52 patrolmen scattered over the state and under six captains. Herbert (Hubert) Brooks, of Alton, one of the new patrolmen, was in West Plains accompanied by Mrs. Brooks. He was driving a new car assigned to him by the Highway Patrol Department. Sikeston will be headquarters for this district, with Captain A. D. Shepard in charge. Four of these patrolmen will have been assigned to a territory in the western part of the district. Their headquarters will be Willow Springs or West Plains. Mr. Brooks will be stationed in Howell and Oregon counties, and we will know next Monday where his headquarters will be located. He will move to the new headquarters as soon as he is advised in what place the location is made."
As it turned out, a patrolman named Nathan Hearst Massie was assigned to Willow Springs. Trooper Hubert Brooks was stationed at Sikeston. There was no headquarters established locally until 1945. Massie worked out of his home in Willow Springs and drove to Troop E headquarters in Sikeston on dirt roads. Trooper Massie, a native of Fremont in Carter County before joining the Highway Patrol as an original member, was a farmer, and former Marine. His father was a county commissioner. He was issued badge number 40, and his Ford Model-A Roadster carried the license number 32. It cost $413, had twin Klaxon horns, a spotlight, and an electric "Patrol" sign behind the right side of the windshield. There were no decals on the side.
The new troopers had been trained in St. Louis. They were instructed in military drill, marksmanship, state geography, state highways, motor vehicle law, and first aid. Each was taught to ride a motorcycle, practicing at Forest Park on Sunday mornings. Their new Colonel ordered them to use courtesy, never argue with a citizen, never touch a car or driver unless necessary to enforce the law, and speak in the 3rd person. Above all, they were to be gentlemen who enforced the law.
Massie's start was especially inauspicious. On the evening before graduation, the troopers were freed from their rigorous training to attend the Veiled Prophet Parade in downtown St. Louis. They were told to eat and sleep with their weapon. Recruit Nathan Massie was watching the spectacle when a St. Louis policeman noticed his revolver. Massie was skinny, and the gun was hard to conceal. Though the recruits were issued .38 caliber Smith & Wesson handguns, no one had thought to give them ID or credentials. Thus Massie spent the night in a St. Louis jail, and neither he nor his captain appears in the graduation photo taken the next day, as his captain spent the morning obtaining Massie's release
Trooper Massie had only been on duty in Howell County a couple of weeks when he became a lead investigator in the murder of Howell County Sheriff Roy Kelly. Like Massie, Kelly was a former native of Carter County. He seldom carried a gun, not uncommon in the early 1930s, preferring an image as an officer capable of performing his duties without violence. He was well-liked and respected throughout the county. In December 1931, Kelly struggled to solve a string of burglaries in the West Plains area, culminating in the break-in and theft of a large amount of merchandise from McCallon's Clothing store in West Plains. The thieves had stolen specific clothing items - appearing to be outfitting themselves. The theft had the markings of a criminal gang.
In the early morning hours of December 19, 1931, three men arrived at the Davidson Motor Company in West Plains for tire repair. The garage owner noticed the men wore clothing similar to that stolen two nights before from McCallon's. Davidson called the owner of the clothing store to have a look, and on his way, Mr. McCallon came upon Sheriff Kelly and asked him to come along and check the men out.
Sheriff Kelly procured a gun from his car, slipped it under his coat, and entered the garage to question the men. He was immediately shot twice in the chest and two times in the right arm with a .45 caliber automatic and died before he could pull out his gun and return fire. The suspect vehicle and the men fled the scene. Their vehicle was later discovered abandoned in the woods. Further investigation revealed the car belonged to Alvin Karpis, a notorious bank robber and a member of the "Ma Barker Gang." Officers next located the gang hideout in Thayer, where plans for their future robbery of the First National Bank of West Plains were discovered.
Massie's work and testimony on the case helped convict Alvin Karpis when he was arrested a few years later by the FBI. Ma Barker and her son Fred had been killed a year and a half earlier than the Karpis arrest in a shootout with police in Florida.
Fighting criminal activity was to consume a significant portion of the new trooper's time, but his primary duty was on the road, all of which were dirt or gravel and miles driven in an open-top car. The new Colonel decreed that convertible model-A vehicles were to be used with their tops down except in inclement weather so the troopers would always be visible to the public. A Journal Gazette report published December 17, 1931, stated, "Traveling salesmen who use the highways perhaps more than any other class of people say it is much safer now for motorists since the new highway patrol has been established. One-eyed cars are fast disappearing, and rear lights are on all vehicles. N.H. Massey is patrolman for Howell County, and his route covers much territory. He will be on duty twelve hours out of each day, dividing his time between day and night equally."
Bank robbery was a persistent problem in rural Missouri. One of Massie's first priorities was the pursuit and eventual destruction of the "Perkins Gang," which operated in the early 1930s, led by Remus Perkins of Shannon County. Perkins, assisted at various times by his brothers, Olin "Bish" Perkins, Arnett Perkins, Gene Goodman, Paul Mills, and Claude Dickerson, were implicated in recent armed robberies. They included the Bank of Bunker, Bank of Birch Tree, Bank of Bunker (twice), Bank of Mountain View, Bank of Bunker, Bank of Mill Springs, Bank of Raymondville, and Bank of Corning, Arkansas. Ironically, all these robberies netted the men very little money. Through the relentless efforts of Massie, the gang was driven from the area. Eventually, the majority of the band met a violent end. Bish Perkins was killed in a gunfight with East St. Louis Police, Arnett Perkins was killed with Gene Goodman by a tavern owner during an attempted holdup in St. Joseph, Illinois. A Missouri Highway Patrolman killed Paul Mills in the St. Louis area.
In our next installment, we will continue the story of the first Missouri State Highway Patrol troopers of Howell County.